There are painters who appeal intuitively and who inspire a love at first sight. Others require more interpretative equipment, more training of the eye before they become an acquired taste.
And then there are painters, however canonised, that continue to elude one. For me, Velazquez is such a painter. I’ve been duly reading up on him. Marshalling the best of my concentration, I’ve been looking intently at some of his most acclaimed masterworks.
But instead of being moved, instead of aesthetic elation, this utter attention so far only produced bafflement (and the beginning of a headache). Clearly I’m not asking the right questions. Clearly I am not looking at what it is he has on offer.
It’s as if I just cannot connect to his particular style. At best I see in his paintings evocations of other approaches, other styles.
His earlier work fits into Spanish realism, with a hint of stark caravaggism. Some of his later paintings enchant (and equally trouble) as hazy reminiscences of Venetian paintings.
Other paintings seem adumbrations of later styles – a hint of melancholy Watteau here, a soupçon of cynical Goya there. Many even seem to announce impressionist methods, albeit in a 17th century setting : they are fleeting visual impressions evoked by splotches of paint - abandoning precision, reneging on the tactile values of corporeality and depth.
But then, maybe it’s exactly because of this protean quality that he is called a painter’s painter?
However, there is some permanent Velazquez trait that I am becoming aware of – a certain pensive, even haunting seriousness in his portraits. And one which also applies to his portraits of women.
Take this portrait of a Christian martyr, Saint Justa , (a pottery professional persecuted for smashing heathen images) – what kind of expression is that? Neither ecstasy nor devotion. A rather serious expression, with a hint of sadness. The colour harmony is neither vivacious nor luminous, but quietly, autumnly harmonious. The composition is simple, but interesting with its formal notes of a diagonal and circles.
That Velazquez did not refrain from painting teenage queens about to burst into tears, was illustrated earlier on this blog.
A follower of his (de Miranda) painted Queen Mariana of Austria some 40 years later – widowed, burdened with regency responsibilities, fanatically catholic and still not looking happy .